August 6, 2020

The train pollutes more than it seems

“Vi häller oss pa jorden” (We stayed on land), the Swedish movement against flying, has turned around the transport situation in Sweden. While air travel in the Nordic country sank last year by 4% and its fall in January sharpened to 8%, the Swedish state-owned railway company registered a passenger record. The Government of the country has even commissioned studies to recover night trains to the rest of Europe as an alternative to the plane. In contrast to air transport, movements such as the Swedish consider the train as a much cleaner system. But the reality is that the railroad pollutes more than it seems.

Marcos López-Brea is a professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and an advisor to governments and organizations such as the International Energy Agency. And yesterday, during his speech at the conference “Air transport and climate change: myths and realities”, organized by the Spanish Aeronautical Society; showed that analysis done to examine emissions of the different means of transport are usually lame. “We can’t just use it to measure the environmental footprint,” said López-Brea. “You have to look at the previous and subsequent phases,” he added. These two phases, he explained, go through dating back to raw materials, to their treatment process, to the waste they generate, to the final phase of the life of the environment … Analyze the complete life cycle, also including the type of energy they consume, distance traveled, occupation, type of fuel, infrastructure, efficiency … it is vital to have a complete picture of the emissions.

If this whole set of factors is analyzed, the environmental footprint of transport, which includes not only the six greenhouse gases typified by the UN that generate climate change and among which is the CO2 that make up the carbon footprint but other impacts; He is older in all media. In the case of short-haul trains, multiply by 2.6, Meanwhile in high speed lines does it for 2.1. It also multiplies in the case of cars (1.6) and buses (1.4). In the transport that increases the least is on the plane (1,3).

Aviation Effort

Despite being the center of criticism from environmentalists, the air sector is not the most polluting means of transport. Together, the sector emits 25% of greenhouse gases, according to Eurostat data. Of that 25%, only 13.4% correspond to aviation, according to the European Environment Agency. Cars are, by far, the ones that emit the most gases into the atmosphere (60.7%), followed by trucks (26.2%) and maritime transport (13.6%).

The sector ensures that in recent years it has made major efforts to reduce emissions of airplanes, much more efficient now. Even so, he believes that decisions could be made that are not within his reach but that would contribute to reducing CO2. Javier Gándara, president of the ALA airline board, says that if the Single European Sky were established, the planes could shorten their routes and emit 10% less carbon dioxide. He also believes that it would help to further develop the emission compensation market – buy emission rights to other sectors – and the generalization of biofuels, compatible with combustion reactors and capable of reducing emissions by 80%. The one that Gándaras does not see as an openwork solution no matter how much activists like Greta Thunberg defend it is the replacement of short-haul flights with the train. “Even if 100% of these flights were replaced, we would only end up with 5% of the problem of aviation emissions ”, he said after remembering that the sector only represents 2.5% of the totals.


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